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Georgia’s Outdoor Classroom Symposium

Originally appears in the Summer 2006 issue

Surveys have shown that one of the biggest barriers to outdoor education is that many classroom teachers are not comfortable taking their students outdoors or feel they lack the time to do so. In response, many education and conservation organizations have spearheaded efforts to assist teachers and administrators in converting schoolyards into natural areas with outdoor classrooms. Ten years ago, a handful of organizations in Georgia went one step further. Sharing a vision of having an outdoor learning center created and used by every school in Georgia, they banded together and created the Outdoor Classroom Council. Since its inception, the council’s main activity has been to organize an annual Outdoor Classroom Symposium where teachers learn how to create and maintain outdoor learning centers and to link outdoor learning with their curriculum. One measure of the symposium’s success is that Georgia today has more schoolyard habitat areas certified by the National Wildlife Federation than any other state.

The Outdoor Classroom Council is a working committee of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia (EEA), a professional education organization and affiliate of the North American Association for Environmental Education. The council’s 15 partners represent a range of organizations, including statewide and regional environmental non-profits, county and state governments, and private industry. They include local nature centers, museums, and zoos; Adopt-a-Stream affiliates; Project WET, Project WILD, and Project Learning Tree coordinators; and representatives from Parent Teacher Associations, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Division, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. As an all-volunteer committee, the council welcomes any individual or organization that can provide financial resources or time and energy to assist with the planning and implementation of the annual symposium. All of the partners bring their strengths and set aside their individual agendas in order to create a successful event; and they continue to promote outdoor learning centers through their individual organizations long after each year’s symposium is over.

The one-day Outdoor Classroom Symposium is held each fall with an attendance of up to 300 educators. Most are from Georgia, but as the event has grown, it has welcomed increasing numbers of participants from surrounding states and as far away Kansas, Wisconsin, and Virginia. Sixty percent of attendees are from schools that have sent other teachers before and are seeking to expose as many of their staff as possible to the benefits of outdoor teaching. Having an opportunity to meet presenters from various organizations, discover new resources, and exchange ideas with other teachers gives participants the confidence that they too can succeed. Simply put, the annual symposium connects people to resources that they might never otherwise learn about. By providing educational and networking opportunities, it has become a catalyst for collaboration between classroom teachers, administrators, parents, scout leaders and other non-formal educators in the development of outdoor classrooms as safe, multi-functional, educational areas for all to enjoy.

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Karen Garland is Manager of Environmental Education at the Georgia Conservancy in Atlanta, Georgia.